Elizabeth II: God saved the Queen

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The Independent Online

This spring the noise you may hear, like that of letting go an inflated balloon, will be the sound of British republicans escaping abroad. For them May and June are going to be months of horror, because 2002 marks the 50th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II (Defender of the Faith). And there won't be a person left in these Isles who hasn't, in some way, been drawn into the celebrations planned for this year.

Even the passive act of observing the spring bank holiday propels the subject (I nearly said citizen) into involuntary festivity. The holiday has been moved from late May to Tuesday 4 June, so as to allow four continuous days of street parties, village fetes, town pageants and other such community folderol. A new medal for members of the emergency services, The Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal, is to be struck. In a gesture that Alexander or the Great Khan would have understood, a new city is to be created to mark the occasion (though, disappointingly, this will not be a virgin construction, but merely the redesignating of an existing town). And, I quote from the Golden Jubilee website, "special lessons for schoolchildren about the Commonwealth and Britain's imperial history are also in the pipeline". Militant members of the NUT should enjoy that one.

The Queen herself will travel "as widely as possible" within the UK between May and July. But for those of us who manage to miss her turning up at our place of work or local high street, there are some major televised events that we will practically be instructed by the broadcasters to watch. One is the great free concert (the tickets will be allocated by ballot) to be held in the grounds of the Palace, and which will "reflect pop music throughout the 50 years of the Queen's reign". The second, entitled "All the Queen's Horses" and scheduled for three days in May in the fields below Windsor Castle, will combine music and fashion from periods since 1952 together with "a celebration of equestrian achievement". This event will, promise the organisers, "involve 1,000 horses and a celebrity cast of about 2,000". I make that two celebrities to a horse; which is presumably what is meant by "equestrian achievement".

But what good does it do to mock? In 1986 I could not even escape the marriage of the Duke of York by travelling to the Turkish/Syrian border. There, in a rooftop restaurant in the town of Urfa, the three televisions set around the walls broke into their belly-dancing and game-show programmes to show us extensive pictures of Fergie going up the aisle. A mile away the winds were stirring the desert sands. Something maintains the monarchy, absurd as it seems. For some reason God has saved the Queen.

Elizabeth II has, since 1952, had her hand kissed by 10 Prime Ministers, beginning with Sir Winston Churchill. She is on her 11th US President (Harry S. Truman was the first). She has seen off all the General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, starting with Stalin, and – as Queen – has watched the smoke issue from the Vatican five times. The Berlin Wall was built and dismantled on her watch. Her pop concert could start with Bill Haley (1953), and contain numbers from Sinatra, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Showaddywaddy, The Sex Pistols, The Beastie Boys, Eminem and – above all – Cliff Richard. It is sad that Steps are no longer with us. She's seen them off too.

I was born when she was already on the throne, and the chances are that you were too. Most of us have known no other monarch. She appears, say academics, at some time or other in the dreams of most of her countrymen and women. Under these circumstances it is hard (and perhaps meaningless) to distinguish between who the Queen is and what she means. Is it just the negative force of our inertia that has kept her afloat at the top of the constitution these 50 years – from fresh-faced kid Queen to Lucian Freud's grey-jowled granny – or her own innate qualities?

Here let me tell you about the trifle. On Boxing Day my wife's aunt served up her traditional cherry trifle, a dish much loved by this Welsh family. My wife found a small sliver of glass in hers; and I found a slightly larger and sharper piece in mine. We insisted that, sad as it was, it was not worth risking internal injuries for the sake of a trifle. My mother-in-law, an almost exact contemporary of the Queen's, was quietly annoyed. Not with the trifle, but with us. Left to herself she would have eaten her bowlful, carefully sifting the custard with her tongue, expecting to find no more shards and confident that it was likely all to be a lot of bother about nothing. A pre-Spock lady, elegant and restrained, and – like my own mother – undemonstrative and stoic, part of a wartime generation which told its own children (to no good effect) to pull their socks up and to get on with it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Don't make a fuss. That generation never had. It never did.

When Elizabeth's father, George VI died, on the night of 6 February 1952, she was in Africa. Shortly after she learned of her father's death an aide found her in her room, "seated at her desk, very upright, high colour, no sign of tears". This was not a sign of a lack of feeling. The dead king had been a family man, who through the various tribulations of the times, had often spoken of the need for "us four" (the fourth was Princess Margaret) to "stick together". But he had also been a man who had always stressed duty. He had lived through one world war, and then been King for a second, when – briefly – the nation's independent future was threatened as never in a thousand years. During these tempestuous times his brother – half monarch, half matinee idol – had caused a crisis by insisting on marrying the wrong woman and had ended up an exiled pro-Hitler Duke in Paris.

It is not surprising then, that a courtier could say of Elizabeth on one of the many occasions that the question of her standing down has been raised, that "I don't think she's the sort of woman who believes in abdication. It's letting down the side".

Family and duty – not the usual qualities of the nobility. The post-war royal family combined the privileges of the aristocracy with the narrow vices of the bourgeoisie. Like her father, Elizabeth had married well. Her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip of various places in Germany was a success. Did that leave her unable to understand, when the marriages of her children went so wrong, that she had been lucky rather than virtuous? As early as 1953 she had seen her sister, Princess Margaret, forsake union with Group Captain Peter Townsend because marriage to a divorcee would have excluded her from any chance of succession (she was then third in line).

But it was all going so well. The televised Coronation of 2 June 1953 was a triumph. There was talk, as austerity gave way to post-war consensus, of the new Elizabethan age. It is hard now to recall the 25 years – from 1952 to 1977 – when all but the most radical of publications evinced nothing but reverence for royalty. The Windsors were beyond and above criticism. Journalistic standards of enquiry and balanced reporting simply did not apply to coverage of royalty. The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge lost his contract with the BBC for writing that the Queen was "frumpy and banal". An appalling sycophancy blanketed the princes, princesses, royal dukes, loyal retainers and household fauna. The Queen was always aware of the benefits of the right kind of exposure. But things changed even beyond her capacity to anticipate them. She got it mildly wrong with the silly investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon in 1969. Instead of being there as Bob Dylan played the Isle of Wight, Charles had an absurdly large crown balanced on those subsequently much-ridiculed ears. Eight years later she did better with the Royal Jubilee, a slow-burning celebration that allowed people to forget an unlovely decade.

I did not go to a street party. Instead I attended the anti-Royalist counter-festival, the People's Jubilee. Which, I imagine, is exactly what Tony Blair or the Palace will, at some point, call 2002's festivities. Republicanism was an eccentricity, Mike Yarwood and "my husband and I" was about as satirical as it got. Save for some criticism of the Queen's failure to go to Aberfan after the disaster in 1966, it was pretty much all royal weddings and intruders into the Queen's bedroom right the way until the Nineties Then Diana and media competition blew the entire edifice out of the water.

It happened quite suddenly, sex and money doing what politics could not. The combination of Charles and Diana's extraordinary marriage, Fergie's toe-sucking and the consequences of the fire at Windsor Castle (where the uninsured, millionairess, non-taxpaying monarch at first seemed likely to be compensated by the poor taxpayer) merged into Elizabeth's annus horribilis. The next five years, including Diana's death, were spent running around trying – unsuccessfully – to put out the various fires. In 1997, as the tabloids screamed at the Queen to "show more emotion" it looked to some of us as though the game might be up. Because even if the Queen could hold on, Charles had no chance.

Another five years on, and it doesn't look quite so bad for the Windsors. The Queen's own stock has risen again, and she is seen more as the victim than the villain, her stoicism is back in fashion. She "won" the 1999 Australian referendum, playing her part by doing nothing that could offend anyone. As another courtier told her best biographer, Ben Pimlott, "She has excellent passive judgement".

Monarchs are in cultural demand again. David Starkey's series on Elizabeth I for Channel 4 was a ratings triumph. On Monday BBC Radio 4's Today programme, having abolished its man and woman of the year poll, will announce the results of its "greatest monarch ever" vote (foreign potentates need not apply).

Could it be that duty and continuity seem more attractive in times like these? How does celebrity help you when the towers are falling? (They are, after all, two a horse.) How many entertainers do the troops need?

Back in 1947 the then Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne, made a 21st birthday broadcast to the Empire, recalling the dedication of her ancestors (or, at least, some of them). "I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple. I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service." Service seems like quite a good bet right now. Expect crowds.